The great outdoors: Frank Lloyd Wright’s architecture school Taliesin West


The architecture school Taliesin West, established by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1937, is like no other — students are expected to build their own shelters, wash dishes, cook and serve food. But now the great man’s living exploration of ‘learning by doing’ is under financial threat and could soon be a thing of fond memories only


Blueprint

Words Anthea Gerrie

There can't be many schools of architecture that include a sleeping bag and a tuxedo as essential kit, but then Taliesin West is the legacy of an eccentric genius. Frank Lloyd Wright's first apprentices at his school, home and studio in the Arizona desert now spend the seven winter months of their three-year M.Arch course holed up in tents, while building the main structure on the site he acquired on a mountain slope overlooking Paradise valley in 1937.

Taliesin West sits in the Arizona desert, overlooking the McDowell Mountains Photo: Tonic Photo Studios
Taliesin West sits in the Arizona desert, overlooking the McDowell Mountains Photo: Tonic Photo Studios

Their successors, who spend the summer months in dorm rooms at Taliesin - Wright's campus was established in 1932 in Wisconsin - are still expected to spend their winters sleeping out among the cacti and tumbleweed. The aim is to produce graduates who know what it's like to live the pros and cons of their blueprints instead of creating residences from inside an ivory tower. In the words of student Pablo Moncayo: 'You experience architecture here from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to sleep. I'm surrounded by quails, coyotes, javelinas and saguaro - I can't describe how beautiful it is, even without the benefit of electricity or water.'

Students spend the winter months of their studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture here at Taliesin West. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios
Students spend the winter months of their studies at the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture here at Taliesin West. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios

Little surprise that this school, with its shelters and the striking school building, which is an intergral part of Wright's last home and architecture practice, is one of the biggest visitor attractions in Scottsdale, a ritzy suburb of Phoenix. A confection of bold colour, extreme angles and patterned surfaces, it was designed by the master to reflect the landscape's 'long, low, sweeping lines and uplifting planes. Surfaces patterned after the rattlesnake, the Gila monster, the chameleon and the saguaro are inspiration enough'.

Frank Lloyd Wright continued to stay at Taliesin West until his death in 1959 at the age of 91. Photo: FLLW Foundation
Frank Lloyd Wright continued to stay at Taliesin West until his death in 1959 at the age of 91. Photo: FLLW Foundation

But as always with Wright, the architecture came with a heavy dose of philosophy. His apprentices were here for a lot more than tuition and practical experience. He felt they should also be equipped for their profession with social and creative skills that went way beyond building their own places to sleep in the desert.

The ceiling of the south-facing dining room overhangs slightly to protect it from the strong Arizona sun. Photo: Andrew Pie Lage
The ceiling of the south-facing dining room overhangs slightly to protect it from the strong Arizona sun. Photo: Andrew Pie Lage

'It's the most unique architecture Master's experience out there - and I do mean experience,' says student Daniel Chapman, who grew up in Australia, qualified as an architect in Colorado and came back to the American West after working in China, drawn by the appeal of learning from the experience of primal living in a desert environment. He revels in sleeping without doors or windows in a desert home of rammed earth walls with a fabric roof: 'Completely in nature with the breezes, the noises, the critters - I love it.'

The walls are made of local desert rocks, stacked with wooden forms and filled with concrete. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios
The walls are made of local desert rocks, stacked with wooden forms and filled with concrete. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios

But even more, he was taken by the unexpected enrichment of his education by domestic chores, which on the surface have nothing to do with building: 'Cooking, bartending, serving food and washing dishes... I've never attempted these tasks for a large group, and it's broadening my knowledge in a way that will inform my architectural decisions in the future,' he declares.

Taliesin West is also home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and is open to the public for tours. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios
Taliesin West is also home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and is open to the public for tours. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios

At Taliesin West, students not only sleep out, they also come in and dress up in dinner jackets on the weekend to serve and hobnob with the region's architects, artists and well-heeled locals - potential clients - who are invited to the exquisite landmark building for monthly formal dinners.

Over the years Frank Lloyd Wright would made changes to the buildings and additions such as the cabaret theatre and musical pavilion. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios

The school also has a dance pavilion and a striking hexagonal, sunken cabaret theatre with near-perfect acoustics, as performance is encouraged as yet another ancillary skill for the Master's degree.

Not that there were any degrees to speak of until 1992 when the school gained accreditation, more than half a century after the first student-apprentices arrived. Vernon Swaback, one of the most prominent architects to emerge from Taliesin West, actually gave up an architecture course at the University of Illinois to become Wright's youngest-ever apprentice in 1957.

'I had to go to Taliesin, then his summer home in Wisconsin, for the interview, and my parents hated taking me there,' he remembers. 'They were highly conservative, and did not approve of this man who had left his wife for a woman who was later murdered with six other people at that house.

The saving grace as far as they were concerned was how unlikely I was to be taken on. But when Wright asked me why I wanted to leave the university I heard myself saying: "Because they are teaching pre-conceived notions" and I sensed my life was about to change forever.'

The cabaret theatre was built with six sides in an irregular hexagonal shape to optimise acoustics. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios
The cabaret theatre was built with six sides in an irregular hexagonal shape to optimise acoustics. Photo: Tonic Photo Studios

Wright was impressed by Swaback's renegade thinking. And although he had been warned he would be sleeping in a tent, the 17-year-old Swaback was still bemused to be sent out into the desert with a packet of mortar and told: 'If you finish that, you'll have a place to sleep tonight.' He worked on the concrete slab and tent structure he put together time and time again over the five years it was his winter home: 'It looked like something out of the Arabian Nights, with red canvas, fireplaces and lanterns all over the place. The student structures have grown more sophisticated and less tent-like since then.'

Swaback was not disappointed by the reality of the 'dreamy images' he had seen of Taliesin West: 'It was like Brigadoon, with all these white, glowing, luminous roofs,' he says of the main structure that was also roofed in canvas and provided inspiration for his own home, Skyfire, in north Scottsdale.

And the advantages of sleeping on site could not be overestimated: 'In a normal architecture practice you might work till 6pm or 7pm and then spend an hour or more driving home - a disjointed experience. At Taliesin West I worked till midnight and then walked down to my tent through the desert under a starlit sky - it was extraordinary, like a nightly ceremony.'

And the shelters had a democratising effect too: 'The tent next to me was designed by a multimillionaire, while I had nothing, but we both had our hands in the mud foraging stones from the base of the mountain, and we were side by side in our DJs every weekend. The mix of work, entertainment, culture, local food production and dialogue with people from all over the world made for a seamless experience.'

Fred Prozzillo, who completed his degree in 2000 and returned to become director of preservation, says the immersion element was priceless: 'Famous architects like Calatrava and Safdie would visit and talk to the students. When the dinner bell went, we'd all go in together and keep talking, and then continue on the deck after dinner for hours.'

The music pavilion with its steel-framed roof functions as a space for exhibitions, performances and events. Photo: Andrew Pie Lage
The music pavilion with its steel-framed roof functions as a space for exhibitions, performances and events. Photo: Andrew Pie Lage

Given that his first degree was in history, he feels the three-year Master's gave him an advantage over students who spent their whole education getting an architecture qualification: 'It was really learning by doing, as when I arrived in 1997 it was as an apprentice to a working architecture practice. After graduating I went into other architecture firms able to make an immediate contribution compared to students in other schools who had only learned theory.'

For all of this, the school is at a crossroads, facing a major financial challenge if it is to keep its accreditation. By-laws of the Higher Learning Commission require it to be financially independent of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, which has spurred a $2m fundraising appeal that must be met this year.

Pablo Moncayo’s temporary desert shelter which he stayed in while renovating the Tree House
Pablo Moncayo's temporary desert shelter which he stayed in while renovating the Tree House

Should there be a shortfall, it could mean the end of perhaps the only architecture school in the world where painting, sculpture, dance, music and drama were considered 'divisions of architecture' by its founder, with cleaning and cooking as essential as building skills to the core philosophy of 'learning by doing'.

'And any diminution of Wright's influence on future generations would be a crying shame,' says Swaback, who believes his guru was the first true eco-architect, his philosophy even more resonant in an age of 'cities built by developers entirely for resale', which are creating the work-life disconnect that Wright slaved to eliminate a century ago.

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